It Might Not Be “Just A Noise” to Your Dog!

When young children hear a scary noise at night, they often run to their parents. The response is usually something like “Don’t worry. It was just thunder.” Or “It was just a noise. Nothing to be frightened of.” Unfortunately, for a dog that is afraid of noise, no amount of explaining or consoling will help. Noise Anxiety is a very real and very common problem for dogs across the country. The estimates vary widely, but somewhere between 5 million and 15 million dogs suffer from noise anxiety severe enough for their owners to seek help. That’s a lot of anxiety! Below is a brief overview of canine noise anxiety including symptoms, causes, and remedies. If your dog suffers from noise anxiety, there are choices available to help relieve her stress. Unfortunately, many veterinarians are not well versed on the different treatments out there and jump to prescribing medications. Make sure you do your research before settling on a plan. But believe me, your dog isn’t alone in her fear and you can help her!

Symptoms

Noise anxiety can exhibit many symptoms and severity levels. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, a fear of thunder may just cause some shaking and clinging to her owner. On the other extreme, thunder may cause panicked running, destructive chewing, defecating indoors, or even jumping through a plate glass window! The table below lists many of the known symptoms. Review the list to see which symptoms your dog may exhibit. Some owners aren’t even aware that a negative behavior they are seeing is actually caused by noise anxiety. For example, does your dog get upset when you take photographs using a flash? That may be noise anxiety! The flash may remind your dog of lightning and she becomes frightened that a storm may be coming.

Symptoms of Canine Noise Anxiety
Panting Drooling Indoor Elimination
Whining / Barking Hiding Seeking Tight Spaces
Destructive Chewing Clinging to People Shaking / Trembling
Scratching Not Eating Pacing / Panicked Running

Causes

Determining what caused your dog’s noise anxiety may be difficult to pinpoint, if not impossible. If you’re lucky, you may be able to trace the start of your dog’s anxiety to a traumatic incident such as being too close to a fireworks show or too close to a lightning strike and its subsequent thunder clap. But more than likely, it won’t be anything that obvious. Your dog may have a genetic predisposition for noise anxiety. Studies have shown that some breeds have a higher incidence of noise anxiety such as Collies, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. For some dogs, noise anxiety gradually appears and worsens as they age for no apparent reason. For other dogs, it appears as a puppy and stays with them.

But one thing that most experts agree on... when it comes to noise anxiety, you never want to pet, coddle, or otherwise console the dog when she’s exhibiting symptoms. Your dog will most likely interpret your behavior as “You see! I do have something to be worried about!” It’s important for the people around the dog to behave normally during events that trigger the dog’s anxiety. In fact, a possible cause for noise anxiety in the first place is her owner’s nervousness or fear of some kind of noise. Most dogs are very sensitive to their owners’ moods. If her owner has a fear of thunder, she may give her owner the benefit of the doubt!

What your dog is actually experiencing with noise anxiety could also be numerous things. For some, it may be just the noise that bothers her... a dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than a person’s and some loud noises may even cause physical discomfort. But for others, it may not even be the actual noise that frightens the dog. Dogs have highly developed senses of smell... they may smell a thunderstorm long before they hear any thunder. Dogs are more sensitive to barometric pressure changes than people... wide swings in pressure may even cause pain in some dogs. Dogs also may react to the buildup of static electricity in their fur when Thunderstorms approach.

Whatever the case may be, there are treatments to consider for giving relief to your dog.

Treatments for Noise Anxiety

So what are you to do? Different treatments work for different dogs. There is no guarantee that any one alternative is best for your dog. Besides the effectiveness at reducing symptoms, there are other issues to consider when evaluating which treatment may be best for your dog. Some treatments can be very time consuming for the owner (for example, desensitizing). Some treatments can become very expensive and pose risks of side effects (for example, ongoing medications). I suggest that you review the options below. If you are just getting started with treating your dog’s noise anxiety, I recommend beginning with the least expensive and time consuming option (a wrap) and if that doesn’t produce the desired results, continue with the other options. It’s not unusual for a combination of treatments to ultimately be the most effective for a particular dog.

Change the Dog’s Environment

These are the “common sense” simple things to try if feasible for your circumstances. Try creating a safe haven for your dog (such as a blanket-covered crate) or finding a location that will reduce the noise level. Try turning on music or the television to help mask the sound of the problem noise. If you know an event is coming (e.g. thunderstorm or fireworks), try giving your dog a lot of exercise beforehand. None of the above typically shows dramatic results, but they can help to reduce symptoms.

Pressure Wraps

This is a surprisingly simple and effective treatment for many dogs. But unfortunately, most veterinarians have never even heard of it as a treatment for noise anxiety. A “pressure wrap” is anything that wraps around the dog’s torso and chest to provide a constant, gentle pressure. Why does it work? No one knows for sure but it’s likely a combination of making the dog feel comforted and secure plus distracting the dog from concentrating on whatever it fears. This treatment has been around for years and has been proven very effective for many dogs. You can try to make one yourself out of an appropriately sized t-shirt, but it can be difficult to put on and to get the desired fit. A product like ThunderShirt works very well. It is very easy to put on, is well made, and is the least expensive commercial wrap available... just $39.95. And ThunderShirt offers a satisfaction guarantee... if it doesn’t work for you, you can return it for a full refund. Pressure wraps often show good results with the first usage, however some dogs requires 2, 3 or more usages before you see reduced or eliminated symptoms. A pressure wrap is inexpensive, the least time consuming, and has no risk of negative side effects. So why not try it?

Behavior Modification

Desensitization is one of the most common behavior modification tried for noise anxiety. In a nutshell, in a controlled environment, you begin by exposing your dog to a low level of the noise that bothers her. As she gets accustomed to it, you increase the levels louder and louder over time until she learns to tolerate the real deal. It’s good in theory but has limitations in practice. It’s very time consuming... if it works at all for your dog, you will likely have to give periodic treatments weekly for the rest of the dog’s life. And many dogs are too smart to react to the “staged” noise; they can tell the difference between a CD playing a thunderstorm and the real thing. If you want to give it a try, several books are available on the subject.

Medications

This is a very involved, complex area of treatment, so I won’t pretend to provide a thorough overview here. There are a variety of prescription medications that your veterinarian may suggest. Some are administered on a regular basis for the life of the dog (Paroxetine or Fluoxetine). Some are given only at the time of an anxiety event (valium). Sometimes a combination of drugs are used... a doggy noise cocktail. Any of these options tend to be relatively expensive. The vet visits alone can run hundreds of dollars over a dog’s life. And you still need to pay for the drugs! Plus all drugs pose the risk of unwanted physical side effects, sometimes severe. Make sure you ask your vet about any potential risks with the drug(s) you’re considering. Two serious issues I have with using a sedative like valium: 1. It can take hours for the drug to take full effect, so you have to anticipate the noise event for it to help. Not very easy for storms that hit in the night. 2. Your dog will remain groggy for hours after the storm has passed and be a danger to herself. If she tries to jump off a bed under the influence of valium, she may very well break a leg!

In conclusion, you don’t have to let your dog just suffer through noise anxiety. There are treatments to try and some do not requires a big commitment by you, either time or money. At a minimum, you should try mixing up the environment and using a pressure wrap. In combination, that may be all you need for your little “puppy” to weather the storms symptom free!